Historicising The Crucible, Criticising Patriarchy

Elsewhere in this documentation, on the ‘Reading Miller Against the Grain’ page, I noted that the portrayal of Proctor, and particularly Elizabeth’s relationship to him, required special treatment if a production didn’t want to proceed to a reading that justifies Proctor’s final act of sacrifice without qualification. The reason for this reading is based in part on a change of emphasis that is intimately connected to the aims of a Brechtian theatre.

This shift takes focus away from the individual and his or her decisions in order to think more carefully about the society in which the individuals act. By including the social dimension in an understanding of an individual’s actions, a production can make a connection between the two. This suggests that changing the society can have an effect on individuals. Brecht called the inclusion of social and historical influences in a production historicisation. So, what does it mean to historicise The Crucible?

Establishing Social Hierarchies

Something that becomes clear from an initial reading of the play is just how stratified the society of The Crucible is. The Puritans of late seventeenth century Massachusetts inherited and developed a society in which people knew their place. In this play, the judges sit at the top of the pile. The clergy are below them, yet above the working people, who nonetheless employ servants and sometimes keep slaves. There is another class also in play, represented by Thomas Putnam: the moneyed landowner. He is a figure of respect, due to his economic power, and so the judges and the clergy treat him differently from those with less wealth.

It is then important to acknowledge all these levels in performance. Every actor must know his or her figure’s place in the social order. This comes into play particularly when someone of lower social status rebukes or challenges someone above them. This frequently applies to Proctor who is on bad terms with Reverend Parris from the start of the play and who has to speak up to the judges in the Act III. Here, Proctor needs to show the audience that he is both trying to respect the judges and challenge their court.

A particular word, used often in the play, when men are talking to each other, is ‘mister’. For the most part, it is used to put someone of lower status in their place, as opposed to the word ‘sir’, which is often used as a mark of respect in the play. Proctor, however, addresses the most socially senior figure, Danforth, with ‘mister’ in Act III, and it was important to show the audience the importance of this insult, by setting up its meaning earlier in the production. This was done by making every use of ‘mister’ scornful and disparaging. This tone was heightened by acknowledging the commas around the ‘mister’ with a beat in order to let it land clearly. Attention to this kind of detail helped retain social barriers and illuminate their violation.

Establishing Patriarchy

It is not surprising that women mostly occupy the lower strata of the hierarchy: the servants and the slaves. They, after all, represent the overwhelming number of people accused of witchcraft in the play. There are some who inhabit slightly higher orders, Elizabeth, Proctor’s wife, and Rebecca, the wife of Francis Nurse, enjoy a certain respectability by dint of marriage, and I will consider Elizabeth’s portrayal in this production below. That said, they are certainly subject to the patriarchy, a relationship in which men hold a power from which women are excluded.

Patriarchy is most clearly represented textually in the appellation ‘woman’, a word which has a similar function to ‘mister’, discussed above. And, as above, the men who use this term delivered it with scorn and respected the surrounding commas with a beat to mark and heighten the word’s meaning. In the final act alone, the apparently enlightened Reverend Hale addresses Elizabeth with the word on several occasions, as does Judge Danforth to Rebecca Nurse. There is no sense that anything major has changed in the play’s gender relations by the end of the play.

At the heart of the play is a misogyny born of the patriarchy that runs through the play. The teenage girls dancing in the woods provoke the witch hunts because the influential men of the play see their power undermined by female sexuality and agency. This leads to a contradiction that is most clearly manifest in the court in Act III: the men depend on the testimony of the girls. For a moment, representatives of the lower levels of society are raised up and treated with respect. But an audience shouldn’t be taken in by this sudden elevation: the production was careful to have the judges use the words ‘child’ and ‘children’ in similar ways to ‘mister’ and ‘woman’ to remind the audience that the so-called witnesses were merely enjoying temporary privileges.

The pervasiveness of patriarchy was shown clearly in Act II. It opened with Elizabeth singing a gentle lullaby to her sons off-stage before entering. On seeing Proctor sitting at the table, she immediately stopped, lowered her head and stood respectfully behind him. This Haltung was adopted throughout the production as a way of signalling the gender relations that never change.

The Task and Effects of Historicisation

Historicisation is designed to clarify relationships in a production. These relationships are likely to be different from the ones today because much time has passed since the historical moment of The Crucible. Relationships, however, are flexible. The fact the someone is socially superior to another doesn’t mean that the person lower down the ladder doesn’t have a chance to speak up or resist the status quo. It does mean that it’s more difficult for that person and that s/he may pay a higher cost.

For an audience, historicising The Crucible should make the familiar strange for them, that is, it is an act of Verfremdung. Its most powerful effect is to allow spectators to see the action as a dynamic interaction between social context and individual. The gestures the figures use and the way they speak will be affected by their context. As a result, a spectator will hopefully approach the material in such a way that connects figure to context, and can thus speculate on how the latter affects the former.

In the case of The Crucible, a central focus was to re-cast Proctor. Here he was no longer a hero who redeems himself, but one who uses the privileges afforded to him to make a symbolic show of defiance. At the same time, he retains his attitudes towards women, notably in the treatment of his wife, thus tarnishing the show of defiance itself. At the other end of the social scale, Abigail was not treated as a cruel manipulator, but someone who finds herself obliged by the clerical figures to denounce fellow villagers. As time goes on, this activity becomes normalized, but its initial manifestations in Act I are marked by nervousness and a concern for those she is obliged to denounce.